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Review: ‘Foxcatcher’ is true crime turned haunting fiction

John du Pont (Steve Carell, left) coaches Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) for his Olympic team in “Foxcatcher.”
John du Pont (Steve Carell, left) coaches Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) for his Olympic team in “Foxcatcher.” Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

“Foxcatcher” is a warped, oppressive landmark.

It’s a true-crime story made haunting fiction. Based on events among three thwarted men that made grisly headlines almost 20 years ago, it requires little in the way of written words or great voices. Yet from its earliest scenes of wealthy noir you feel this meticulously controlled film drift to a sinister ending.

Isolation is a key theme. Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum, a damaged man-child) lives alone in a shabby Wisconsin apartment. A champion wrestler, he built his career through years of rough and tumble struggle. He won gold at the L.A. Olympics three years before, but no livelihood. He got occasional speaking appearances at middle schools, and handled them clumsily. The sparse gigs paid nickels and dimes. They were passed along to him because they were declined by his older brother, Dave (played with disarming innocence by Mark Ruffalo), a prominent college wrestling coach.

During their parentless childhood Dave was the younger boy’s substitute father, earning both gratitude and resentment. He was the leader in wrestling, winning gold at the same Olympics as Mark. A wise, kind family man with a loving wife and two kids, he seems aimed for a good life just as Mark is slipping into decline. When Mark wrestles Dave, or the sports complex’s damaged practice dummies, he battles his own seething bitterness.

Mark’s lost life moves in a new direction when reclusive aristocrat John du Pont (Steve Carell, brilliantly dramatic) calls him for a meeting. Mark is flown to the vast Foxcatcher estate, a hallowed Pennsylvania horse farm. Now it houses a state-of-the-art athletic training center.

Du Pont, a complex eccentric, aims to guide his own wrestling squad to Olympic victory. He offers to be Mark’s sponsor, his mentor, his father figure. Thrilled by the attention, hopeful he could return to championship form without Dave’s assistance, Mark joins the Du Pont stable.

What Mark doesn’t realize is that his psychologically troubled sponsor is as needy for approval and companionship as he is. Du Pont feebly tells Mark his friends address him as Eagle; Odd Duck or Cold Fish would be more appropriate. The heir to a family fortune with no accomplishments of his own, he is an arrogant example of great wealth without great wisdom. He passes his days by taking revolver practice with the local police and spouting pap about achievement and patriotism for home-produced videos.

Protected like a princess by his employees, he aims to win the esteem of his peers and the approval of his mother (Vanessa Redgrave), a stern, overbearing horse breeder who controls the family fortune. To impress her, Du Pont appointed himself Team Foxcatcher’s head coach though he couldn’t have functioned an hour as a high school referee.

Mark and Du Pont, falling through the cracks, each feel the other can help them find respect and admiration. When men under duress join together, it’s problematic at best. When their aspirations are pointless, there’s potential for disaster.

Director Bennett Miller, who made screen history with his first two films, “Capote” and “Moneyball,” finds moments of ghastly humor in the coming downfall. Getting them both high on cocaine in his chauffeured helicopter, Du Pont tells Mark how he should introduce him at a charity dinner. “Ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist,” he utters time after time until it becomes a flash of sick levity.

Their link grows closer and stranger, moving into an eerie friendship and then reaching meltdown. The relationship becomes torturous when the fickle, conniving Du Pont calls Dave, recruiting him to a position atop the team that embodies his ego. Dave accepts, confident about working with athletes but unclear about the erratic heir. Mark erupts in an outburst of frustrated violence against himself when his competitions fall short. It’s best not to enter spoiler territory about what follows, but the finale is grimly shocking.

Each star’s look is transformed to perform against type. Tatum’s ears are cauliflower from bruising battles. Ruffalo is aged with a beard and waning hairline. Carell, with extra weight, gray hair and a prosthetic nose, is unrecognizable. “Foxcatcher” proves that American realism is among the best material for movies, because it is often astounding.

Review

‘Foxcatcher’

Rating: R for some drug use and a scene of violence

Starring: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo

Directed by: Bennett Miller

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